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Whitewash of opioid epidemic deadly for urban communities

Wednesday, December 27, 2017
Chicago Sun-Times
by Mary Mitchell

When crack exploded in Urban America during the ’80s, the only people who seemed to care about the lost souls were family members.

We were horrified by how quickly the drug turned mothers into streetwalkers and fathers into thieves and two-bit hustlers.

The crisis sent thousands of neglected children into the foster care system and gave birth to the term “crack babies.”

Besides the obvious toll crack took on the family, heroin use fueled the spread of HIV because addicts shared needles.


America’s response to the crisis was harsh, as Congress passed tougher sentencing laws aimed at punishing drug users and drug pushers alike.

But now that the problem of drug addiction has moved from poor neighborhoods to Middle America in the form of opioid painkillers, there’s a very different tone.

Behavior that was once considered a moral failing is now being cast as a “national emergency” with the bulk of the blame being placed on the medical profession.

On Wednesday, county officials jumped on that bandwagon and filed a lawsuit against the nation’s leading pharmaceutical companies over their “aggressive marketing of prescription opioid painkillers.”

“We must act in the public interest and hold accountable those who have been complicit in the creation of this epidemic,” Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said.

The county wants pharmaceutical companies to pay for, among other tings, the cost of opioid treatment and prevention programs at Cook County Jail, and for the cost of treating patients at the county’s health system who overdose on opioids.

That’s a far cry from the mockery and the scorn heaped on crack addicts 20 years ago.

Does this change in attitude reflect a deeper understanding of drug addiction, or are we more compassionate because this drug crisis has been viewed as a predominantly white, suburban epidemic?

Either way, the mischaracterization of the opioid epidemic has apparently put black people at an even greater risk for overdosing.

A recent report by the Chicago Urban League, “Whitewashed: The African American Opioid Epidemic” found that while African-Americans make up 32 percent of Chicago’s population, they accounted for 48 percent of opioid deaths.

“African Americans are dying from opioid overdose at a rate higher than the general population in several states, including Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, Minnesota, West Virginia and in Washington, D.C.,” according to the executive summary.

“Black Americans are now dying from overdoses at around the same rate as white Americans were in 2014,” the Vox website reported.

That news site came to a shocking conclusion about why the opioid painkiller epidemic hit white Americans much harder than black Americans.

“Studies show that doctors have generally been more reluctant to prescribe painkillers to minorities, because doctors mistakenly believe that minority patients feel less pain or are more likely to misuse and sell the drugs,” Vox reported.

Doctors who held such prejudiced notions might have actually done their minority patients a favor.

Still, it is appalling that anyone charged with providing health care could be that racist.

It would be just as racist for policymakers to ignore that fentanyl-laced heroin is putting a lot of black lives at risk.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2016, fentanyl was detected in 56.3 percent of 5,152 opioid overdose deaths in 10 states that included Wisconsin and Ohio.

In its first report illustrating the deaths along geographic and racial lines, the CDC also found that drug deaths for African-Americans in urban areas climbed 41 percent, compared to whites at 19 percent, the New York Times reported.

Elected officials and policymakers can’t let this crisis be whitewashed.

It is true what they say.

“When White America gets a cold. Black America gets pneumonia.”

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